ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Inbee Park once felt she could walk down the streets of Seoul as the No. 1 player in women’s golf without being recognized.
That was two months ago.
Now she can’t even make it through a toll booth.
The week before she set out to make history at St. Andrews, the 25-year-old Park went home to South Korea to visit family and friends. She was surprised by the number of people who met her at the airport, and who looked her way when she was out in public dressed in regular clothes.
“I was driving by the toll gate and some lady was giving me a toll ticket and she was like, `Oh, are you Inbee Park?’ And she was stopping my car,” Park said Tuesday. “So there was a lot of episodes there. It’s cool to be recognized and to have a lot of fans. And I think that really helps me.”
It helps to be on the verge of doing something no other golfer in this Royal & Ancient game has ever achieved.
Slam or not, Park has a shot at something grand.
On an Old Course that even in sunshine is dripping with history, she goes after an unprecedented fourth straight major this year at the Women’s British Open. Park is the heavy favorite at St. Andrews, much like Tiger Woods when he won on the Old Course in 2000 to complete the career Grand Slam.
The gray old town doesn’t have the same energy level as when a claret jug is on offer, though Park’s name is part of every conversation. Woods (2000-01) and Mickey Wright (1961-62) are the only players to have won four straight professional majors, though never in the same calendar year. Woods was the last player to win three straight majors in a single season.
The debate is whether to call it a Grand Slam if Park were to win. The LPGA Tour added a fifth major this year, the Evian Championship in France. The modern version of a Grand Slam is about four majors. The original version of the Grand Slam — from bridge — is about winning them all.
It’s a nice problem to have, and it really doesn’t need any definition except to note that it has never been done.
“If it could happen, it’s something that I will never forget,” Park said. “My name will be in the history of golf forever, even after I die.”
What’s amazing is how quickly Park reached this point.
Turn back the calendar two months, and Park already was satisfied with her season. She won the first LPGA Tour major of the year at Kraft Nabisco Championship, which helped her to regain her spot at No. 1 in the world ranking.
But the dominant player of her sport?
She sure didn’t look that way, especially if anyone happened to be watching a stretch of holes at the Bahamas Classic. On a 145-yard hole, her tee shot was 10 yards short and 20 yards wide of the green. On the next hole, a longer par 3 over a pond and into the breeze, Park fanned a 4-iron so badly that it landed in the middle of the lake. Her next tee shot splashed down closer to the bank — still some 30 yards short of the pin — and she eventually made a 9.
She missed the cut. She didn’t break par in any round of her next tournament and finished middle of the pack.
“I was really struggling with the swing that week,” Park said. “I was trying different things on the golf course. After that, I found the right swing.”
Park looks to be somewhere between unstoppable and unbeatable.
She won the LPGA Championship in a playoff over Catriona Matthew, and then became made it three straight majors by making the toughest test in golf look like a breeze in her U.S. Women’s Open victory at Sebonack Golf Club.
In technical terms, she is driving the ball straighter and her putting stroke is among the purest in women’s golf. What sets her apart is a calm demeanor and a unique outlook for someone who has no reason to think she can’t win every time she tees it up.
The higher the pressure, the lower her expectations. That’s the formula she took to the U.S. Women’s Open.
“I kept thinking it’s OK if I don’t win,” she said. “I’ve already won five times, and just wanting more is wanting too much.”
As far as the attention, Stacy Lewis feels that’s one area where Park deserves more. The star of this show didn’t get much of a turnout for her press conference after a pro-am round Tuesday on the Old Course. The room was not even half full.
“I think for what Inbee is doing right now, she’s not getting the credit that she deserves for it,” Lewis said. “If somebody was doing this on the men’s tour, it would be talked about over and over and over again for a month before the major — not just a couple of days before.”
Maybe that will help Park, although she is well aware of what’s at stake this week.
The attention she received at home in South Korea — her gifts included a gold putter and a red Ferrari that she gets to keep for one year — was nothing like what Se Ri Pak endured after her blockbuster rookie season in 1998. The media crush was so great that Pak was hospitalized briefly for exhaustion.
Park only got stopped at a toll booth. And she still had to pay the fare. It was rare proof that she’s not much different from anyone else.
Or is she?
Park can become the first golfer to win four majors in a single year. The stage is St. Andrews, the most historic golf course on earth.
“You would think after winning two of them it would faze her a little bit,” Lewis said. “But obviously at the U.S. Open, it didn’t. I don’t know. Inbee is playing so good this year, and she’s so steady. You wouldn’t know whether she’s winning a tournament or whether she’s losing it, and that’s what you need in a major.
“As a player, you’d like to know if she’s human, to see if she actually feels the nerves like the rest of us do.”MORE IN Sports Wire
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